The mission of E3Think’s Transportation Transformation series – Trans Trans, for short – is to “accelerate the roll-out of urban transportation innovation ASAP.” A series of sold-out discussions over the past year built up to a summit of sorts, held Thursday, April 26, at the New York Institute of Technology. RR was in attendance, both as a spectator (Helen) and as a speaker (Gregg). The following is a highly selective and flagrantly opinionated report on the day’s proceedings.
The Electriphant in the Room
First, let’s address the electriphant in the room, that is, the electric car. In my humble, pedal-powered opinion, Trans Trans – and “green” transport pushers in general – place far too much emphasis on electric vehicles. At best, electric cars act as methadone for our country’s heroin (gasoline) addiction: they enable us to do a bit less harm to ourselves without requiring that we give up our fix. At worst, they are an all-out boondoggle – defined, by Dmitri Orlov, as a solution to a problem that results in more severe problems than the one it attempts to solve. In this case, the most severe of the more severe problems is simply a few more years’ perpetuation of the fantasy that we can fend off ecological collapse (and human die-off) by making a few barely perceptible changes to the conduct of our individual and collective lives.
What makes the supposed eco-benefits of widespread electric car use a fantasy? Well, let’s see: In some utopian future, it is possible that all the electricity used to charge them could come from wind turbines and solar panels. But even “clean” energy sources such as these require enormous amounts of embodied energy (from fossil fuels) for construction and maintenance. And, in our decidedly non-utopian present, almost 90% of U.S. electricity comes from coal, natural gas, nuclear fission, and petroleum. Plus, as one Trans Trans panelist pointed out, more than 30% of the average EV’s lifetime energy consumption occurs during production. Bottom line – here I paraphrase Ralph Nader – it has always been, and will always be, ridiculous to rev up a 2-ton chunk of machinery to go down to the corner for a box of Chiclets. Even Bill Ford, of Ford Motors, agreed, to a degree: Kevin McLaughlin, founder of AutoShare (Toronto’s answer to Zipcar), quoted Mr. Ford as saying, “People who live in cities don’t need to own a car.”
Sam, Sam, He’s Our Man! If He Can’t Do It, No One Can!
A highlight of the day’s events was getting the inside scoop – from Sam Schwartz himself – on “Gridlock Sam’s” transportation plan. Eschewing the punitive-sounding “congestion pricing” – in both name and substance – Schwartz is calling his cure for the city’s circulatory ills the “Equitable Transportation Formula,” or ETF. Schwartz contends that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to charge all drivers entering Manhattan’s CBD failed to garner popular support because of its narrow focus on decreasing pollution. The ETF, on the other hand, seeks to stimulate people’s willingness to pay into public transit by providing all parties (pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, transit users) with a higher level of service. Greater investment in public transit, in turn, combined with strategic tolling, would persuade more and more “choice” drivers (those with viable alternatives to driving) to leave their cars at home.
Some background on (and baked-in absurdities of) NYC’s transportation network, as currently configured:
• The East River bridges have not always been toll-free – all three had trolls lurking under them until 1911.
• Every entry point to Staten Island is tolled. An alien perusing a map of New York, Schwartz said, would think Staten Island was the city’s CBD.
• 60% of vehicles traversing the East River bridges have no business in the CBD – they’re traveling through, toll-free, on their way to somewhere else.
Some of the ETF’s more interesting provisions:
• Lower or eliminate tolls for those with poor access to transit.
• Reduce bus fare by $1 in neighborhoods not served by the subway.
• End parking tax rebate for car owners south of 86 St. in Manhattan.
• Get trucks off Brooklyn streets (and onto the Belt Parkway?).
• 2/3 of ETF-generated funds would go to transit, 1/3 to roads and bridges (including Bus Rapid Transit).
• $0.75-1 billion would be spent on bike facilities, including three new bridges just for bikers and walkers (from Hoboken/Jersey City to Manhattan’s West Side; from Greenpoint to LIC to Manhattan’s East Side; from Downtown Brooklyn to Governors Island to the Financial District). East River bridge tolls on bikers ($0.50 per crossing for New Yorkers, $3 per crossing for tourists) would feed into a fund dedicated to building and maintaining these bridges and other bike-related infrastructure – and, says Schwartz, further legitimize bikes as a form of transportation.
I’m not sold on the bike toll idea (for one thing, wouldn’t the costs of enforcing payment cut steeply into any revenues generated?). But I would be, if the ETF pledged to end the biker-pedestrian wars on the Brooklyn Bridge by turning over a car lane (on the lower level) to bikes.
The Evolution of Bike Share
Speaking of bikes: Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives conveyed the good news that many of NYC’s bike share docking stations will be placed in streets, not on sidewalks – so the advent of bike share won’t necessarily be intensifying the battle between cyclists and pedestrians for access to scraps of city real estate. She also introduced the wonderful and colorful idea of “bringing the bicycle out of the recreational gutter,” i.e., according it full respect as a vehicle for the conduct of personal and commercial business.
Expanding on the bike share theme was Ryan Rzepecki of SoBi (Social Bicycles), who identified four distinct stages in bike-share history: First, hippies set bikes out on the street for free, no strings attached. Next, cyclists dropped coins in slots to release rental bikes. Now, cyclists use credit cards to unlock bikes from docking stations. (This is the model that is set to be rolled out in NYC this July, on the grand scale of 10,000 bikes, provided Alta Bike Share is able to line up that all important corporate sponsor in time – not a peep so far regarding who the lucky winner might be.) Soon – under the SoBi model – shared bikes will be tracked by GPS and locked and unlocked by smart phones. SoBi will be testing the social bicycle concept this summer in NYC with a 60-bike fleet.
The Car of the Future: Bunny-Soft, Baby-Safe?
The one car-related technology at Trans Trans that caught my fancy was Maria Aiolova’s idea of air-bladder cars so soft as to be able to collide with each other without damage. Should one of these cars hit a pedestrian, it would – said Aiolova – “tickle” (rather than kill – that’s an improvement, right?). When soft cars replace all others on the road – when every motor vehicle looks and feels like a cross between a marshmallow and a bunny rabbit – I will, with pleasure, retire the term “motor weapon.”